Two million Americans fought in Vietnam.
But not one of them has ever been elected president. If John McCain’s bid for the presidency is unsuccessful, no veteran of that war will ever occupy the White House.
This would make it unique among American wars and the political fortunes of their heroes.
From the beginning of the republic Americans have looked to former warriors for leadership. America’s first president, George Washington, was the hero of its first great war. The fifth president, James Monroe, was also a Revolutionary War veteran. The Battle of New Orleans, the final engagement of the War of 1812, helped General Andrew Jackson become president.
Victory over the Shawnee leader Tecumseh at Prophetstown (near the Tippecanoe River) enabled William Henry Harrison to win the presidency with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” The Mexican War produced Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce. Save for Grover Cleveland, every president from Ulysses S. Grant (who also saw action in the Mexican War) to William McKinley fought in the Civil War.
Theodore Roosevelt led the Rough Riders’ charges up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. Harry Truman was a veteran of World War I. Except for Jimmy Carter, who served in Korea, every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush served in some capacity in World War II (Ronald Reagan was in the Army Enlisted Reserve but remained stateside due to his nearsightedness.)
AS THE ABOVE LIST CONFIRMS, Americans have viewed service in war as a distinguished and prized commodity in their leaders, and this has traditionally been a crucial feature of a potential president’s resume. Veterans, viewed as returning heroes, held up as role models and idols, have found an easy transition to political roles. But Vietnam reshaped this pattern.
The war itself was deeply divisive and the opposition it generated at home fueled a skewed image of its veterans as bitter, psychologically disturbed violence-prone drug addicts. Though this representation is inaccurate, these myths about Vietnam veterans remain and many still view the men who fought the war through the same scornful lens they view the war itself.
And as the conflict raged, colleges and universities banned Reserve Officer Training Corps programs from campus, young men burned their draft cards or headed to Canada to avoid conscription, while students rallied and protested against the war. Today, this generation casts pivotal votes in presidential elections.
The ’60s and ’70s also fundamentally changed the way Americans viewed war. Previous generations had seen wars as noble and sometimes necessary; baby boomers identified wars with the nefarious schemes of those in power. Accordingly, many adult Americans of the baby boomer generation relate more to men who did not fight in Vietnam.
Our two most recent presidents have been men from this generation. Neither George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton served in Vietnam — a fact that their opponents and detractors exploited to little effect; both men were accused of avoiding the war or dodging the draft, but Americans still elected each of them president.
THOUGH VIETNAM VETERANS have served in Congress and statehouses, and Al Gore served as a military journalist in Vietnam for five months, until now, John Kerry was the only presidential nominee from either party to see extensive combat in Vietnam. His complicated relationship with that war, on stage during his presidential bid in 2004, also illuminated several of the difficulties the country still has in coping with that era.
His candidacy emphasized his time in Vietnam: the first words of his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention were “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.” This was an odd spectacle given the antiwar sentiment of his Democratic Party and his actions after he returned home from Vietnam.
Kerry had been a vocal and visible member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and was the first veteran to testify before Congress about the conflict. In his testimony Kerry said that soldiers there had “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan…”
This testimony was attacked by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign, which neutralized any advantage he could have had as a veteran.
McCAIN, THE MAN WHO SPENT five and half years in captivity in North Vietnam and refused early release, will not likely face such second guessing. And since much of his appeal is based on his post-service Senate record as a maverick, he will not have to predicate his candidacy solely on his time in Vietnam.
Still, if he loses in November, the door may be shut on a generation of veterans’ opportunity to lead the nation.
What is less certain is whether this stigma is unique to veterans of Vietnam or if that war irrevocably changed our nation’s view of the role of military service in presidential politics.
It remains to be seen if the men and women fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan will be able to rise to our highest elected office or if Vietnam created an unbridgeable gulf in 200 years of American history.