In the recent issue of the Chronicle Review, Penny Lewis has a brief essay on the subject of her latest book entitled, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory (ILR Press, 2013). Her argument seeks to correct the misplaced emphasis on liberal elites as the engine of the antiwar movement. Rather, Lewis contends, “the notion that liberal elites dominated the antiwar movement has served to obfuscate a more complex story. Working-class opposition to the war was significantly more widespread than is remembered, and parts of the movement found roots in working-class communities and politics.” Lewis notes that the most consistent support for the war came from the “privileged elite.” Thus by addressing the question of “who opposed the Vietnam War?” Lewis forces us to contend with the idea that those who opposed the war did not distribute themselves neatly into cultural boxes–opposition to the war appealed to and cut across categories of race, class, and gender. In short, the image of working class hardhats attacking elite, college-educated kids does not tell the whole story.
Lewis’s essay reminded me of a study I came across when I was trying to figure out how Americans responded to and debated the moral implications of Vietnam. In 1979, William Lunch and Peter Sperlich published a study, simply entitled “Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” in the Western Political Quarterly (v. 32, March 1979). Their data demonstrated that support for the war was strongest among the youngest Americans polled. For example, in March 1966, in polls that asked “In view of developments since we entered the fighting in Vietnam, do you think the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam?” 71% of Americans age 21-29 responded “No” to this question, whereas 48% of Americans age 50 and over responded “No” to the same question. Jump forward to May 1971, and the numbers for these two groups, respectively, were 34% and 23%–with the younger generation still showing more support for the war than their elders. When looking at different options in the war, in regard to those younger than 35 years of age polled in 1964, only 11% supported withdrawal, while 49% supported escalation; in regard to those over 35, 19% supported withdrawal and 40% supported escalation. By 1971, that configuration remained consistent.
Their research also illustrated that from the beginning of the war, those on the lower end of the income spectrum supported withdrawal and opposed escalation at higher rates than those with higher incomes. But more to the point that Lewis makes, data from this study also demonstrated there was considerable agreement about the war among working class Americans of all ages, color, and gender and those Americans who had post-college education and who had incomes above the middle class. Among the most interesting data points in the study was that from 1966 to 1969 (roughly from the Fulbright hearings to Nixon’s election in ’68), young, white, middle-class, religious, college-educated men, overwhelmingly supported the war.
Support for the war certainly waned among all groups in the early 1970s, but considering what Lewis suggests about who opposed the war, we might need to reconsider our terms. It wasn’t the protesters who stood apart from “ordinary” Americans by opposing the war but rather those who supported war. Considered in these terms, ordinary Americans were those who opposed the Vietnam War and did so throughout its history, while a very specific subset of Americans maintained their support for the war. If we do try to get at some understanding of what is “ordinary” or “typical” in American experience, should we rethink the American relationship to war?