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How Many Elections Has Vietnam Played a Role in?

History Q & A




Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

The first election in which the Vietnam War played a critical role came in 1964. Thereafter it was a central issue in the elections of 1968, 1972, 1988, 1992, and 2004. (In 1980 and 2000 it briefly became a subject of discussion.) Counting 1980 and 2000, Vietnam has been part of the quadrennial national debate in eight of the last eleven elections. Only the Civil War, of all our conflicts, figured in as many subsequent elections. And at the rate we are going, Vietnam may soon eclipse even the Civil War. (This is not to say that Vietnam had an equal impact on American history. Its impact has obviously been less. But for some reason--which historians must puzzle over--it is having a greater impact as an issue in ensuing campaigns.) These are the elections in which Vietnam has become an issue:

1964

In the 1964 presidential campaign the incumbent, Democratic candidate Lyndon Johnson, repeatedly tried to convince voters that he had no intention of getting the United States involved in the conflict in Vietnam. However, according to historian John Morton Blum, Johnson"was already planning to expand that war." Johnson maintained his non-intervention position on Vietnam even after August 2, 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched a supposedly unprovoked and unequivocal attack against the U.S. destroyer Maddox, which was on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf. When the ship was supposedly attacked two days later in the same vicinity, Johnson that evening announced that the U.S. would begin retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. Johnson subsequently asked Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which"supports the determination of the President, as Commander in Chief, to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."

As Daniel Ellsberg has recalled, LBJ misled the country in several ways. The attack was not unprovoked; the U.S. had recently shelled several of North Vietnam's islands in an operation run by the United States, code named 34A. Nor was the attack unequivocal; there was no second attack--the ship's radar had picked up false readings of torpedoes that had never been fired. Finally, the Maddox and a sister vessel, the Turner Joy, were operating in an area long claimed by North Vietnam. The ships were on a secret mission, code named DeSoto, designed to elicit intelligence about the North's activities.

Unlike Johnson, the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater publicly argued in favor of intervention. He was deemed by many -- including many Republicans -- an extremist. Goldwater believed that whatever force was needed to defeat the communists in Vietnam should be used, including nuclear bombs. In response to this the Johnson campaign released a controversial television ad which portrayed a little girl picking and counting petals from a daisy in a field, which then dissolves into a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud. This ad, referred to as the"Daisy Girl," was intended to highlight Goldwater's alleged recklessness. In the end voters chose to elect President Johnson in a landslide victory. The following year LBJ began a massive build-up in Vietnam.

  • "Some are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon us to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. They ask us to take reckless action [such as bombing North Vietnam]….Such action would offer no solution at all to the real problems of Viet Nam."
      Lyndon Johnson, October 1964

  • "use low yield nuclear bombs, if necessary, to fight communists in Vietnam and elsewhere"
      Barry Goldwater, 1964

1968

In 1968, the presidential campaign's main issue was the ongoing war in Vietnam. "Hawks" remained supportive of the Johnson Administration's policy in Vietnam, but "doves" opposed the war, and college students by the thousands protested American involvement. With this in mind in October 1967, Eugene McCarthy decided to enter the race for the Democratic Party's nomination, running as an anti-war candidate. McCarthy, with the help of college students, won 42 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Shortly afterward Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy on a peace plank. Johnson, faced with declining poll ratings, decided to drop out of the race on March 31st. On June 6th, Kennedy won the California primary, but was assassinated. Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Presidential candidate amidst intense anti-war rioting in August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The Republican candidate was former Vice President Richard Nixon. He spoke about his plans concerning the Vietnam War in generalities but promised to end it with honor. Humphrey, closely associated with Johnson’s Vietnam policy, was heckled wherever he went. After initial hesitating to break with the administration, Humphrey decided to assert his independence from Johnson, proclaiming his support for a bombing halt even without a goodwill gesture from the North Vietnamese (LBJ favored a gesture of goodwill prior to a halt). Humphrey gained momentum as he began to draw support from liberal Democrats and anti-war protesters. By October, as negotiations between the U.S. and North Vietnam took place, Humphrey came to wear the mantle of the peace candidate. Even Eugene McCarthy supported him. Nixon, however, believed that the prospect of peace was a campaign ploy. Despite the possibility of peace and Johnson's decision to order a halt in the bombing, Humphrey lost to Nixon in a very close race.

  • "And I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We shall not stop there -- we need a policy to prevent more Vietnams."
      Richard Nixon, Acceptance Speech, Republican National Convention, August 8, 1968

  • "Meanwhile, as a citizen, a candidate, and Vice President, I pledge to you and to my fellow Americans, that I shall do everything within my power to aid the negotiations and to bring a prompt end to this war."
      Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Acceptance Speech, Democratic National Convention, August 29, 1968

  • "As president, I would stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace because I believe it could lead to success in the negotiations and thereby shorten the war."
      Hubert Humphrey, September 30, 1968

  • "In the last thirty-six hours, I have been advised of a flurry of meetings in the White House and elsewhere on Vietnam, I am told that the top officials in the administration have been driving hard for an agreement on a bombing halt, accompanied possibly by a cease-fire in the immediate future. I since learned that these reports are true. I am also told that this spurt of activity is a cynical last-minute attempt by President Johnson to salvage the candidacy of Mr. Humphrey. This I do not believe."
      Richard Nixon, October 25, 1972

1972

In 1972 American involvement in the Vietnam War still remained an important campaign issue. President Richard Nixon was running for re-election and hoped that he could present himself as a peace candidate and focus on his foreign policy achievements. Although he had not ended the war in Vietnam, he had been able to bring tens of thousands of American troops home. Through the process of "Vietnamization," Nixon was gradually transferring the burden of the war to the South Vietnamese. However, he still heavily supplied the Vietnamese with military equipment, and authorized punishing bombing runs. An invasion of Cambodia had risked expanding the war.

The Democratic candidate was George McGovern, a South Dakota senator who was considered the spokesman for the anti-war movement. McGovern, a World War II bomber pilot, had opposed American involvement in Vietnam since 1963. The Democratic Party's 1972 platform called for an immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam. The party also supported amnesty for draft resisters, as well as an offer of amnesty to deserters on a case by case basis. This would occur after all American troops and POWs returned home.

In the weeks leading up to the end of the campaign Nixon suspended bombing in Vietnam, and negotiations began with the National Liberation Front. Just before the election Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that"peace was at hand." Kissinger's announcement helped propel Nixon to a landslide victory.

  • "We must have the courage to admit that however sincere our motives, we made a dreadful mistake in trying to settle the affairs of the Vietnamese people with American troops and bombers. . . . There is now no way to end it and to free our prisoners except to announce a definite, early date for the withdrawal of every American soldier. I make that pledge without reservation."
      George McGovern, announcement of candidacy for the Presidency, 1972

  • "We believe that war is a waste of human life. We are determined to end forthwith a war which has cost 50,000 American lives, $150 billion of our resources, that has divided us from each other, drained our national will and inflicted incalculable damage to countless people. We will end that war by a simple plan that need not be kept secret: The immediate total withdrawal of all Americans from Southeast Asia."
      1972 Democratic Party Platform

  • "We believe that peace is at hand. We believe that an agreement is within sight, It is inevitable that in a war of such complexity that there should be occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution."
      Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, October 1972

1980

In the 1980 presidential campaign Republican candidate Ronald Reagan told the Veterans of Foreign Wars stated that the Vietnam War was a"noble cause." In 1980 the war was still an open wound and his comment became fodder for incumbent Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter. A desperate Carter, playing on Vietnam fears, claimed that Reagan would likely involve the United States in war. But Reagan was able to score a victory in November, helping sweep into power a Republican Senate, for the first time in decades.

  • "It's time that we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause."
      Ronald Reagan, August, 1980

1988

Accusations of draft evasion dogged vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 campaign. Quayle, an obscure senator from Indiana, had been virtually unknown to the nation when George H.W. Bush picked him as his running mate at the Republican convention. Wendell C. Phillippi immediately came forward to claim that he had helped Quayle get into to the National Guard to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. Phillippi was a former senior editor at the Indianapolis News, which was owned by Quayle’s family, and also a major general in the Indiana National Guard.

Phillippi also claimed that there was nothing unusual in his intervention on Quayle's behalf, as he had acted similarly for others as well. The revelation however cost Quayle, who had always assumed a pro-military posture, dearly. Despite calls to drop Quayle, Bush stuck to his decision and kept the senator on the ticket. The Bush/Quayle ticket won the election in November against Democrat Michael Dukakis.

  • "Exactly 20 years ago, who I said, 'I'd like to get into the National Guard,' phone calls were made, I can't answer the – I don't know the specifics of that. The only thing I know is I did want to get into the National Guard. I'm very proud of my service in the National Guard."
      Senator Dan Quayle, 1988

  • "I got into the Guard fairly. There were no rules broken, to my knowledge... I, like many, many other Americans, had particular problems about the way the war was being fought. But yes, I supported my president and I supported the goal of fighting communism in Vietnam."
      Vice President Dan Quayle 1992

1992

Once again in the 1992 presidential campaign, the question of a candidate dodging the draft for the Vietnam War became an issue. Quayle's service in the National Guard once again made headlines. So too did charges that Democrat Bill Clinton dodged the draft for the Vietnam War. The Republicans claimed that in order to get a draft deferment, Clinton had pledged that he would enter the University of Arkansas Law School and join the R.O.T.C after attending Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. Instead, he chose to be reclassified I-A, which would have sent him to war. After the draft lottery was instituted in November 1969, he drew too high a number to be drafted. Instead of going to Vietnam, Clinton attended Yale Law School.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary a letter Clinton wrote in 1969 to the R.O.T.C chief at the University of Arkansas surfaced. In the letter Clinton expressed his thanks for getting him out of the draft. Despite the controversy--and accusations that he had had affairs with women--Clinton, the "Comeback Kid," came in second in New Hampshire. In November he won a three-way election against incumbent Republican, George Bush and independent Ross Perot.

  • "I was in the draft before the lottery came in. I gave up the deferment. I got a high lottery number and I wasn't called. That's what the record reflects. A Republican member of my draft board has given an affidavit in the last couple of days saying that I got no special treatment and nothing in the letter changes that, although it is a true reflection of a just-turned-twenty-three-year-old young man.
      Bill Clinton, 1992

  • "I want to thank you, for saving me from the draft…I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress."
      Bill Clinton to R.O.T.C commander Col. Eugene Holmes on December 3, 1969

  • "The Vietnam War is not an issue in 1992 and should not be"
      Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Senator and Democratic Candidate, in 1992

  • "To divide our party or our country over this issue today, in 1992, simply does not do justice to what all of us went through during that tragic and turbulent time."
      John Kerry, on the Senate floor, February 27, 1992

2000

Vietnam played a minor role in the election, but questions about George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War damaged the Republican's credibility. Records indicated that he had possibly skipped duty during 1972 when he left Texas to work on a Republican senatorial candidate's campaign in Alabama. Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, had served in a non-combat position in Vietnam and escaped criticism on this score at least.

2004

With the war in Iraq continuing, the Vietnam War again became a focus of the presidential campaign. John Kerry was attacked for allegedly "medal-shopping" while in Vietnam and for opposing the war after he returned home. The so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth assailed Kerry's patriotism. For several weeks the newspapers were filled with stories about Vietnam. Democrats, reeling from the attacks, slowly responded by attacking George W. Bush's service in the National Guard. A Texas Democrat claimed he had helped Bush jump other candidates to get into the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War. CBS claimed documents showed that Bush had directly disobeyed an order to take a physical. CBS later apologized, saying the documents may not be authentic.

  • "I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."
      John Kerry, comments released ahead of a midnight speech in Springfield, Ohio, September 2, 2004

  • "Character counts. Especially in the president of the United States, character counts. And we want a president that will be truthful and honest and level with the American people. If the president will lie about this, will he lie about how we got into Iraq, for example?"
      Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, 2004

  • "Nineteen individuals have served both in the National Guard and as president of the United States, and I am proud to be one of them."
      George W. Bush, September 14, 2004

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More Comments:


Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

For the little it may be worth,this is offered:

During the Viet-Nam War 6,140 U.S. Nat'l Guardsmen served in Viet-Nam. 101 of the Guardsmen died in Viet-Nam.

These figures suggest that while serving in the Guard one's chances of being sent to Viet-Nam were not very high, but it was always a distinct possibility. Still, over 2 1/2 million G.I.s served incountry, but only 6,140 of them were Guardsmen.

If one were drafted into the U.S. armed forces during the war, the odds weren't very high that one'd be sent to Viet-Nam. After all, but 25% or 26%, according to which of two sets of figures one chooses to accept, of the G.I.s who served in-country were draftees.


Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Maarja,

It is pleasing you post here.

Dave


George Antrobus - 10/9/2004

Vietnam played a role in the 1976 election. President Ford had established a limited amnesty program for Vietnam era draft dodgers and deserters. Jimmy Carter promised essentially an across the board amnesty for dodgers and deserters and implemented it immediately after his inauguration.


Andrew L. Johns - 10/8/2004

Vietnam also played a pivotal role in the GOP nomination in 1968. On most other issues, Richard Nixon, George Romney, and the rest of the GOP field had similar (if not identical) positions. In fact, Romney was probably the leading candidate for the nomination before his infamous "brainwashing" comment in August 1967. It is clear from the evidence that Nixon's ability to effectively manage the Vietnam issue in the campaign (and, by contrast, Romney's inability to do so, Rockefeller's total lack of a position, and Reagan's hawkishness) allowed him to win the GOP nomination.


Maarja Krusten - 10/5/2004

Thanks for the additional info.

Posted on personal time during lunch break.