This week we mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. On our screens and in our memory’s eye we can see the helicopters lifting the last, desperate evacuees from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
Today, Saigon is Ho Chi Minh City, named for the man who led communist North Vietnam to victory over the U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam. Two generations have grown up since, and the current regime runs a hybrid economy, trades with the U.S. and welcomes American diplomats and tourists.
Much has changed in the U.S. as well. At least two generations of Americans recall Vietnam as a watershed in their lives. It surely was so for the millions of Americans who served in uniform then, and for millions more who stayed home but had their lives redirected or put on hold.
In many ways, things would never be the same. Even the way we choose our presidents would change.
In the 1960s, much of American life was in flux. Race relations were in turmoil. The civil rights movement transformed the South, schools were integrated, riots wreaked havoc on major cities. Upheavals were underway in the culture as well, in music and dance and other forms of art and expression.
But with all the disruptions and dislocations of the era, the constant source of anxiety and unease was Vietnam. It was on the news every night, on the front page every morning. It was a cloud over family gatherings, a factor in planning one’s life. Although far away in a remote part of the world, the war seemed part of everything else that was uncertain or unstable.
And before the war reached that dramatic endpoint, four decades ago this week, it would change a great deal of American life.
Many of these changes had political implications. The Vietnam War made the draft, which had been a distinct feature of American life since 1940, politically unsustainable. As a consequence, before the war was over, the U.S. had moved to the all-volunteer Army it has today.
Although widely welcomed at the time, the end of conscription also closed an era in which military service was a common obligation, a shared experience that, for all its sacrifices, served as a source of national unity.
Vietnam also accelerated the enfranchisement of the 18-year-old voter. The mantra was, “If I’m old enough to die for my country, I’m old enough to vote.” Similar sentiments prevailed on college campuses and fostered the growth of a youth culture featuring an array of alternative lifestyles — and a newfound interest in politics. Typically, those politics centered on the war — and the choosing of the next president.
The wartime nomination struggles of 1968, when the war was at its peak, and 1972, when the American involvement was winding down, altered the presidential process for the Democrats — and ultimately for Republicans too. Running for president has never been the same.
By 1968, anti-war marches had become a familiar part of life in the United States. But perhaps the most consequential anti-war demonstration came that summer, when tens of thousands of war protesters gathered in Chicago to demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention.
The protesters considered Democrats responsible for the war because the Democrats held the White House and both chambers of Congress. President Lyndon B. Johnson had inherited the war from his predecessors, but he had also chosen to escalate that commitment to more than half a million troops, adding a devastating dimension of high-altitude bombing as well.
“Hey, hey, LBJ,” the protesters chanted, “how many kids did you kill today?”
The pressure on Johnson had grown so great that spring that he had aborted short his re-election bid and thrown the nomination open. That helped start peace talks, but it did little to appease the anti-war movement at home.
That summer in Chicago, the demonstrators spilled out of Grant Park and toward the convention itself. Helmeted Chicago police set upon them with nightsticks (one official investigating commission would later call it “a police riot”). TV images of the demonstrators being beaten on Michigan Avenue were seen all over the world.
The spirit of melee even invaded the convention floor. There were shoving matches and shouting matches and at one point the presiding officer was not able to keep order. In the end, however, the convention nominated Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who had not won a single primary. Anti-war delegates and their candidates were rebuffed by the party establishment, which still controlled most of the delegates — regardless of the primaries.
Humphrey’s nomination was the doing of the system, but it also did in the system. In the years that followed, as the war dragged on under a new president (Republican Richard Nixon), Democrats formed a commission to rewrite their rules for selecting delegates to the national convention. The commission would tie the selection of delegates to the results of primaries.
Under the new rules, the anti-war activists who had been shut out in 1968 were able to organize and dominate the nominating process in 1972, turning back a comeback attempt by Humphrey.
Since that time, the Democrats have retooled their rules several times. But they have not disturbed the basic commitment to a grass-roots process that empowers activists and populists and the kind of candidates who can motivate them.
It did not take long before the Republican Party followed suit. While their process in 1972 was traditional, the 1976 nominating struggle between incumbent President Gerald R. Ford and challenger Ronald Reagan showed the growing appeal of putting the nomination in the hands of “the people” — meaning the people who participate in primaries and caucuses. In the decades since, the GOP has moved ever closer to the Democrats in their nominating rules, emphasizing the power of the primaries to select the nominee.
It has often been observed that the candidates chosen by these more egalitarian processes have not necessarily been superior to their historical predecessors — either as candidates or as chief executives.
But it is difficult to see how either party can now dial back on its commitment to letting the people — at least those people active in party voting — be the deciders of presidential nominations. That die was fatefully cast almost half a century ago, in the struggle to end the war in Vietnam.