What Trump Doesn’t Get About Vietnam

Roundup
tags: Vietnam, GOP, 2016 election, Donald Trump



Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.  Thumbnail picture - "Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore 4" by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vietnam wasn’t supposed to rear its head in 2016. With the election of Barack Obama, the first president to have come of age after the war’s close, many political observers expected that the quadrennial debate over who served and who dodged—an issue in every presidential election from 1992 through 2004—was at last over. Leave it Trump to drag it back into the public square on Saturday, when he derogated the wartime service of Sen. John McCain, a combat veteran who endured five years of torture as a POW in the notorious Hanoi Hilton. “I like people that weren’t captured,” he said.

The Donald, who received a medical deferment in 1968 for bone spurs in his heels, seems genuinely confused by the backlash. It would be easy to write his nescience off as a form of adolescent self-absorption (though, in fairness to adolescents, most probably know how to recognize a war hero when they see one).

But part of his problem owes to a lasting historical legacy of the Vietnam War. Simply put, Vietnam was an internal class war as well as a war against a foreign belligerent. Unlike all American conflicts that preceded it, Vietnam drew sharp lines between those with means and those without. Young men from privileged backgrounds who served in Vietnam, like John McCain and John Kerry, usually did so electively, and as officers. Most working-class men, on the other hand, had no choice. They could join or be drafted, and almost always, they were enlisted.

We tend to lump the “sixties generation” into one undifferentiated cohort. But there was considerable divergence between the experiences of working-class men and those of their more privileged peers. This departure explains much about politics in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as some of Donald Trump’s current struggle.





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