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  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
  • Interview: George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
  • Interview: Maurice Isserman on the 1960s, Vietnam and Iraq
  • Interview: Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War

  •  INTERVIEW: MAURICE ISSERMAN

    Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"



    Continued | Back to part 1

    Q: Another impression I have from that time is that the bedrock of people supporting the war — and people taken aback by the youth culture of that time — were the World War II generation, for whom it was a denial of the conception that they had of what the country was all about.

      
    MAURICE ISSERMAN
     
    Maurice Isserman.

    Maurice Isserman, professor of history at Hamilton College in upstate Clinton, N.Y., is co-author of the 1999 book "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s" with Michael Kazin. My own childhood memories of the 1960s and early '70s have been coming back to me, as the same kind of societal division, naked anger and passionate activism seem to be coalescing in ways I haven't seen in the last 30 years. To get a better feel for that dimly remembered era, I talked to professor Isserman about the tumult of the '60s and the historical threads that connect our time to those times.

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    State of the Nation

    Interviews about the state of our country from the election to the inauguration.

    • George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
    •  Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
    • Bard O'Neill on Insurgency, Terrorism and the Iraq War
    • Maurice Isserman on "America Divided"
    • Eric Foner on freedom
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     America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Right. But again, you have to be careful saying that. My father was a World War II veteran and my mother lived through the war, and, again, they were bitterly opposed to the war. I think what happened — after 1968, a majority of the American people opposed the war. If you look at the public-opinion polls, a majority of Americans agreed that going into the war had been a mistake. Increasing numbers described the war not only as wrong but as immoral, until a point was reached in the early 1970s where a majority of Americans — this is astonishing and it's all but forgotten — said that the war in Vietnam was an "immoral" war. Not just a mistake in policy but actually immoral.

    The curious thing was that that did not translate into increased public acceptance or approval of the anti-war movement. The messenger gets blamed. The anti-war movement came along and said this is not a war that embodies American values or decent human values, or that's going to lead to American victory — like we think of American wars always ending in a splendid surrender by the enemy. And the anti-war movement was blamed, in a sense, for speaking the truth. And the anti-war movement, or at least sections of the anti-war movement — and particularly the youthful sections who were sort of making this up as they went along — share some of the blame for adopting a very confrontational and very morally self-righteous tone that turned off many Americans. But I think that even the most enlightened and strategically brilliant anti-war movement would have incurred some of that wrath — for being right. So the war got more unpopular, and the anti-war movement was also unpopular.


      
    In the early 1970s a majority of Americans — this is astonishing and it's all but forgotten — said that the war in Vietnam was an "immoral" war. Not just a mistake in policy but actually immoral. The curious thing was that that did not translate into increased public acceptance or approval of the anti-war movement.  

      
    At the same time, if you were in the midst of the anti-war movement, as I was, what you saw was more and more people were opposed to the war and the demonstrations got bigger and bigger. The 1969 Vietnam Moratorium involved millions of people across the country from all kinds of backgrounds. Increasingly — in this era of John Kerry and the Swift Boat Veterans — we saw Vietnam veterans coming out in their jungle uniforms, with their medals on, coming out to anti-war protests. And that was tremendously legitimizing for those of us who hadn't been to Vietnam. We had to think, "Gee, do we really know what's going on?" And here are these guys coming out in their jungle fatigues, and they were often the most militant and the most vehement in their denunciations of the war.

    Q: What do you think turned the non-activist, average-American public opinion, then?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, it was an accumulation. I mean, this war went on for a long time. It went on longer than the Civil War. It went on longer than World War II. You know, Americans started to tune in to the Vietnam War in about 1963 — it had already been going on for several years by that point — and by 1965, I think most Americans could find Vietnam on a map. And then, the war just didn't go away, you know? It kept coming back. We just passed this landmark where 1,000 Americans have died in Iraq, which is a terrible toll and an indictment of President Bush, who told us a year and a half ago, "Mission accomplished! Well, we won that one!" But 1,000 Americans was the number of Americans who died in Vietnam in two weeks in January-February of 1968 during the Tet Offensive, which was really the turning point in terms of pulbic opinion on the war. So the war just went on. It was this accumulation of casualties and the accumulation of disheartening news and the sense that this was never going to change unless we just bit the bullet and got out.

      
      One of the great unforeseen consequences of this is that you're going to see the collapse of the National Guard over the next few years because nobody's going to re-up after this, knowing that what it means is the possibility of being yanked out of their secure civilian existences as weekend warriors and actually being sent into a place where you can get killed.
      
    Q: I remember that at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, the first President Bush said that we "finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome." What do you think he meant by that?

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Well, the "Vietnam syndrome" by that point was a clichˇ describing the reluctance on the part of American presidents to place American troops in harm's way overseas, and he was saying, "Look, we had this great success." Ronald Reagan, who talked about America being "tall in the saddle" again, never actually put troops in harm's way unless it was an easy, guaranteed win like Grenada — or, when he found that in fact he was winding up with a lot of dead Americans on his hands, as in Lebanon in 1985 when terrorists blew up the Marine barracks there and killed, I think, 250 or 280 Marines there in one blast, he got them the heck out of there. That was the Vietnam syndrome.

    In the 1990s, I think you could see the Vietnam syndrome returning in the sense that, when Clinton intervened in Bosnia, say, he would not put in ground troops. He intervened from 15,000 feet. He intervened with air power. Iraq II and Bush II may have thought they were laying that syndrome in the ground again, but I think after the experience of Iraq, which is another kind of no-exit, grinding, ever-mounting-casualties experience, it's going to be a long, long time before a president — including this one, if he's re-elected, God forbid — commits American troops to a land, ground-combat situation.

    Q: In fact, so far they haven't increased troop levels over the past year, I think, even though the situation is increasingly violent.

    MAURICE ISSERMAN: Right, although we're in this sort of Vietnam flashback where the military is saying, we cannot pacify the insurgents unless we have more troops. The American troop level is at, what, 150,000, and there are a few scattered tens of thousands from the "coalition of the willing," mostly British, and they're saying we need many, many more than that. And I don't know where they're coming from because there's no draft and the National Guard has been bled dry. One of the great unforeseen consequences of this is that you're going to see the collapse of the National Guard over the next few years because nobody's going to re-up after this, knowing that what it means is the possibility of being yanked out of their secure civilian existences as weekend warriors and actually being sent into a place where you can get killed.


    Continued: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | Next

    NOVEMBER 1, 2004
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