Saturday, June 10, 2006

Myths of the Baby Boom and the Vietnam War

One common theory on why the United States is so bitterly divided and angrily partisan these days is that the Baby Boom generation is now in charge and they deeply divided over the Vietnam War and the Sixties in general. I hope that this is true, because it means that when a new generation takes over, maybe some sanity can prevail. But I fear it is not so. A generation that grows up on today's talk radio can hardly be expected to be moderate and civil. Nonetheless, given all the fuss over the Baby Boom generation and its supposed importance, it is worth while laying to rest at least three myths about Boomers.


This is the oldest and by now most discredited myth, generally promulgated by people who took part in anti-war protests. It amounts to saying that the anti-war protestors of the Sixties were the Baby Boom generation, presumably in its entirety. This one is hardly even worth refuting. If all members of the generation were out protesting the war, then what generation was fighting it? In fact, only a minority of the Baby Boom generation either protested or fought the Vietnam war. The anti-war protestors need to face that fact that they were distinct minority of their generation.


This version is promulgated by people who supported the war. It says, in effect, that the elite -- people like Bill Clinton or John Kerry -- opposed the war while the great silent majority of ordinary, blue collar Americans -- steel workers and construction workers like George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, or Newt Gingrich -- supported it. This should not be worth refuting either. A little common sense reveals that George W. Bush, Dan Quayle and the rest were not ordinary blue collar Americans, steel workers, construction workers, and the like, but were every bit as elite as the Clintons, Kerrys, etc. What was happening, in short, was not a divide between ordinary Americans who favored the war and an elite who opposed it, but a divide within the elite between supporters (like Bush or Quayle) and opponents (like Clinton or Kerry).


Myth number three does seriously need to be refuted because, though false, it is widely accepted today. It is the view that, although people like Bush, Cheney, etc. were members of an elite, they were an embattled minority of the elite who supported the war while most of the elite opposed it. This embattled minority, though members of an elite, spoke for the silent majority of ordinary, patriotic Americans who supported the war. In other words, the divide was still between an anti-war elite and pro-war ordinary Americans, these groups were simply not monolithic. The current Republican leadership can acknowledge that it was just as much an elite as the current Democratic leadership, but it was the elite that spoke with the voice of ordinary Americans.

But it still isn't true. The myth that opposition to the war was the preserve of an elite while a "silent majority" ordinary, patriotic Americans favored it is false and needs to be exposed. In fact, THROUGHOUT THE VIETNAM WAR SUPPORT FOR THE WAR CORRELATED POSITIVELY WITH INCOME AND EDUCATION LEVELSa. In other words, more "elite" a segment of the population, the greater a proportion of it belonged to Nixon's "silent majority."

The belief that opposition to the Vietnam War was the preserve of an elite while ordinary Americans supported it is, when one seriously considers it, illogical. After all, it was the elite who were primarily responsible for policy decisions on the war in the first place. If the elite opposed the war, they would have had the simple recourse of not fighting it. To believe that ordinary, decent Americans favored the war and only an elite opposed it also raises the troubling issue of race. Everyone knows that black people were both disproportionately non-elite and disproportionately opposed to the war. Does this mean that only whites qualifed as ordinary, decent Americans?

What is true is that the more flamboyant acts of opposition to the war, the demonstrations, the burning of flags and draft cards, the counter cultural behavior, the whole "hate America" attitude was the product of an elite, and it offended the great silent majority of (white) Americans, even as that great silent majority was increasingly turning against the war. And this, in turn, allowed the pro-war portion of the elite to proclaim themselves champions of ordinary decent Americans, while the anti-war protestors turned against ordinary Americans as not enlightened enough to support their protests.

And so it remains to this day. The conservative, pro-war elements of the elite, many of whom (the chick hawks) supported the war only so long as someone else was doing the fighting, continue to this day to use the language of populism and proclaim themselve the champions of the common man, even as they show great enthusiasm for placing common men in harm's way. The liberal, anti-war elements of the elite continue to patronize ordinary Americans and treat them as too dumb to know their own interests, and too unenlightened to support fashionable causes like abortion on demand, gay marriage, and the National Endowment for the Arts. This vital bit of history, that ordinary, decent Americans were more inclined to oppose the war than the elite, is long forgotten.

My advice to any liberal who wants a political future: Drop the stereotypes, drop the patronizing and get to know the real silent majority, then and now.


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