The Vietnam War deepened the class divide in American society. About 80 percent of the 2.5 million American men who served in the Vietnam War came from the poor or working class. Meanwhile, “[t]he institutions most responsible for channeling men into the military – the draft, the schools, and the job market – directed working class children to the armed forces and their wealthier peers towards college,” according to author Christian G. Appy. “Most young men from prosperous families were able to avoid the draft, and very few volunteered. Thus America’s most unpopular war was fought primarily by the nineteen-year-old children of waitresses, factory workers, truck drivers, secretaries, firefighters, carpenters, custodians, police officers, sales people, clerks, mechanics, miners and farmworkers . . .”
Another way to examine who fought and died in Vietnam is to examine which towns and neighborhoods the casualties came from. Appy compared the number of Vietnam casualties from the three affluent Massachusetts towns of Milton, Lexington, and Wellesley with the working class community of Dorchester. The three affluent towns had a population during the war of about 100,000, equal to that of Dorchester. Eleven soldiers died from the three wealthy towns while Dorchester lost 42. A study of wartime casualties from Illinois concluded that men from neighborhoods with median family incomes under $5,000 ($28,115 in 2009 dollars) were four times more likely to die than men from neighborhoods with a median income above $15,000 ($84,347 in 2009 dollars.)
Enlistees from blue collar families ranged from a low of 52 percent in the Vietnam-era Air Force to a high of 57 percent for the Marine Corps. From 1966 to 1971, 79.7 percent of servicemen had 12 years or less of education. High school dropouts outnumbered college graduates in the military by 3-1. For most of the war, soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam were also disproportionately African American.
In the early years of the war, African Americans, more often coming from poor backgrounds, were more likely to volunteer for the military or to lack the college deferment or other means of avoiding Vietnam service. They made up 20 percent of combat deaths. (African Americans in the mid-1960s comprised 11 percent of the American population.) For most of the war, African Americans re-enlisted at a higher rate than whites. Even though African American enlistments trailed off at the end of the war, they still represented a larger percentage of wartime deaths (12.5 percent) than they represented in the general population.
If it was a rich man’s fight and a poor man’s war, part of the reason rests with local draft boards, charged with ruling on requests for deferments. These drew overwhelmingly from the affluent. A 1966 national study found that only 9 percent of members of draft boards came from blue collar backgrounds, while 70 percent were professionals, public officials, managers, and mid-level bureaucrats. These boards tended to favor the deferment requests of the upper class and were more skeptical of applications from lower income brackets.
Part of the working class opposition to the war perhaps stemmed from the fact that their children disproportionately had to serve in Vietnam and casualties from Vietnam more often came from poor and working class neighborhoods. A firefighter who lost a son in Vietnam told interviewer Robert Coles:
"I’m bitter. You bet your goddamn dollar I’m bitter. It’s people like us who give up our sons for the country. The business people, they run the country and make money from it. The college types, the professors, they go to Washington and tell the government what to do . . . But their sons, they don’t end up in the swamps over there, in Vietnam. No, they get deferred, because they’re in school. Or they get sent to safe places. Or they get out with all those letters they have from their doctors . . . Let’s face it; if you have a lot of money, or if you have the right connections, you don’t end up on the firing line in the jungle over there, not unless you want to."
DODGING THE DRAFT, ELITE STYLE
Until 1971, the American draft laws granted deferments for those attending college. College students disproportionately came from the middle and upper classes. Future political leaders like President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz – an architect of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- and House Speaker Newt Gingrich all received college deferments during the Vietnam War. Another recipient of a college deferment, future House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, claimed that, "So many minority youths had volunteered ... that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like myself."
Placement in the reserves and the state National Guard units became another way elites with political connections avoided combat duty in Vietnam. Only 15,000 National Guard and reserve soldiers actually served in Vietnam, out of a total of more than a million men. The National Guard became such a popular means of avoiding Vietnam that by 1968, the waiting list for enlistment reached 100,000 names.
“Throughout the country, the reserves and the guard were notorious for restrictive, ‘old boy’ admissions policies,” wrote Appy. “In many places a man simply had to have connections to get in. For the poor and the working class it was particularly difficult to gain admission.” Appy notes that the number of college graduates in the Army reserve equaled three times the number in the regular Army. Blacks, who disproportionately came from the poor and the working class, comprised only 1.45 percent of the National Guard in 1964. As the Guard became a refuge for well-connected white men, the black percentage of the Guard dropped to 1.26 percent by 1968. Future political leaders who avoided Vietnam service through this means include Vice President Dan Quayle and President George W. Bush.
Considering such evidence, sociologist James Loewen observes that even though elites proved less likely to serve in combat, they more strongly supported the war. He suggests that more than mere hypocrisy was involved. He argues that elites internalized the values of the ruling class and felt allegiance to policies formed in Washington. Elites tended to attribute their success not to their luck in birth parents but to their individual effort. “Believing that American society is open to individual input, the educated well-to-do tend to agree with society’s decisions and feel that they’ve had a hand in forming them,” Loewen wrote.
Loewen also believes that a major function of the American educational system is indoctrination. “The more schooling, the more socialization, and the more likely the individual will conclude that America is good.” Thus, Loewen suggests, elites on major newspaper editorial boards, in network newsrooms, in policy institutes, in the Pentagon and in the executive branch of the federal government, continued to have a faith in the Vietnam War effort when objective evidence suggested the war was a failure. Less invested in a system that provided them fewer rewards and in which their influence was denied, working class and poor people were more likely to favor an end to the war.
THE WHOLE THING IS A MESS
This didn’t mean that the poor and the working class identified with the peace movement. Appy explains the paradox this way. “Working class people opposed college protestors largely because they saw the anti-war movement as an elitist attack on American troops by people who could avoid the war,” he said. “. . . How, they wondered, could college students possibly claim to be victims (of police brutality, of bureaucratic college administrators, of an inhuman corporate rat race that provided meaningless work) when they were so obviously better off than workers who endured far more daily indignity and mind-numbing labor?”
The fireman interviewed by Coles captured the conflicted feelings of the working class. “I hate those peace demonstrators,” he said. “Why don’t they go to Vietnam and demonstrate in front of the North Vietnamese? . . . The whole thing is a mess. The sooner we get the hell out of there the better. But what bothers me about the peace crowd is that you can tell from their attitude, the way they look and what they say, that they don’t really love this country. Some of them almost seem glad to have a chance to criticize us . . . To hell with them! Let them get out, leave, if they don’t like it here! My son didn’t die so they can look filthy and talk filthy and insult everything we believe in and everyone in the country – me and my wife and people here on the street, and the next street, and all over."
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.