The Viet­nam War, 50 years ago, gave us Pres­i­dent Trump

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY LEONARD STEINHORN Leonard Steinhorn is a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and af­fil­i­ate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, a CBS News po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, and au­thor of The Greater Gen­er­a­tion: In De­fense of the Baby Boom Le­gacy. His­tory News Net­work

Fifty years ago this fall, in 1967, the num­ber of Amer­i­can troops in Viet­nam ap­proached half a mil­lion, but it wasn’t the Viet­nam War that wor­ried a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans.

When Gallup asked Amer­i­cans about the most ur­gent prob­lem fac­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies, they said it was in­fla­tion and the high cost of living. Only 5 per­cent cited the threat of a loved one — or them­selves — go­ing to Viet­nam.

Yet Viet­nam can­not be sep­a­rated from the eco­nomic angst that be­gan to surge through mid­dle Amer­ica in those years. The war fu­eled in­fla­tion, in­creased taxes, squeezed fam­ily bud­gets, and ul­ti­mately ger­mi­nated the white work­ing- class re­sent­ment that five decades later thrust Don­ald Trump into the White House.

Ar­guably, we now have a Pres­i­dent Trump be­cause of the Viet­nam War.

By the mid- 1960s, Amer­i­cans had en­joyed nearly two decades of sus­tained pros­per­ity and bullish con­sump­tion — “one of his­tory’s great shop­ping sprees,” as one his­to­rian called it — and this over­heated econ­omy showed few signs of slow­ing down.

But then Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son made a fate­ful de­ci­sion.

Not want­ing to re­veal the ex­tent of our in­volve­ment in Viet­nam, and not want­ing a de­bate in Congress over how to pay for it — which he feared would de­prive his beloved Great So­ci­ety of fund­ing — he de­cided to con­ceal the cost of Viet­nam by bor­row­ing.

But the more John­son pumped bor­rowed dol­lars into the war, the more it chan­neled in­vest­ment and pro­duc­tiv­ity into de­fense and away from the con­sumer econ­omy. Soon con­sumer de­mand be­gan to out­strip sup­ply — and prices slowly be­gan to rise.

Wages also rose with in­fla­tion, but for most work­ers, they did so only an­nu­ally — yet prices were in­creas­ing monthly. Mort­gage rates were edg­ing up as well. Amer­i­cans still spent, but they did so ner­vously, wor­ried about fall­ing be­hind.

In Au­gust 1967, John­son sent a spe­cial mes­sage to Congress warn­ing that the grow­ing fed­eral deficit could pre­cip­i­tate a “spi­ral of ru­inous in­fla­tion,” and he called for a tem­po­rary 10 per­cent in­come- tax sur­charge to fi­nance the war.

But con­ser­va­tives in Congress made him pay a price: a cor­re­spond­ing 10 per­cent cut in do­mes­tic dis­cre­tionary spend­ing. To pay for the war, John­son had to starve his Great So­ci­ety. The war, he lamented, “killed the lady I re­ally loved.”

The tax sur­charge did lit­tle to stem in­fla­tion. To work­ing Amer­i­cans, costs still were out­pac­ing raises, and now they were pay­ing more in taxes. By the end of the 1960s, in­fla­tion had crept above 6 per­cent, and mort­gages were nearly dou­ble what they were just a few years be­fore.

Taxes also weren’t in­dexed to in­fla­tion, so the more money Amer­i­cans earned through in­flated wages, the more it pushed them into a higher tax bracket. The gov­ern­ment seemed to be tak­ing more and not giv­ing any­thing back.

Work­ing- class fam­i­lies were also sup­ply­ing more than their sweat to pay for Viet­nam. It was their young boys be­ing sent off to war. Most col­lege stu­dents didn’t go.

So the work­ing class saw their boys, not the priv­i­leged or well- ed­u­cated, head off to the jun­gles of In­dochina. They also saw col­lege cam­puses erupt with moral con­dem­na­tion at the war their kids were risk­ing their lives to fight. Grat­i­tude and pa­rades were scarce for re­turn­ing sol­diers. Even those who dis­liked the war dis­liked the anti- war move­ment even more.

From their per­spec­tive, their taxes were higher, their wal­lets were thin­ner, their sons were in dan­ger, and their coun­try was un­grate­ful. But with their kids over­seas, they were re­luc­tant to blame the war for their woes.

So they turned their fire else­where. They blamed the me­dia, which they said por­trayed only the most neg­a­tive as­pects of the war. They blamed stu­dents and in­tel­lec­tu­als for look­ing down on the sac­ri­fice their kids were mak­ing.

And they blamed lib­er­als for rais­ing their taxes and lav­ish­ing dol­lars on what they deemed to be the un­de­serv­ing poor — even though the Great So­ci­ety it­self was be­ing starved.

To them, they were hard- work­ing Amer­i­cans who were sac­ri­fic­ing their sons abroad and get­ting squeezed at home, and all they got for it was elite con­de­scen­sion and a gov­ern­ment that paid at­ten­tion to ev­ery­one but them.

To be sure, Viet­nam was not the sole cat­a­lyst for this emerg­ing white, work­ing- class pop­ulism. As early as 1964, the jour­nal­ist Theodore White wrote a pre­scient Life mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle de­scrib­ing a grow­ing racial back­lash among north­ern whites un­easy over civil rights, de­seg­re­ga­tion, ur­ban un­rest, and crime. Many of them were New Deal Democrats who tol­er­ated their party’s sup­port for civil rights — as long as the move­ment stayed south.

But as much as civil rights roiled Amer­ica, it took Viet­nam to tur­bocharge these grow­ing class, cul­tural, and eco­nomic re­sent­ments — to make them deeply per­sonal — and they would fes­ter in our pol­i­tics for decades to come.

We are still living with the con­se­quences to­day.


Pro­fes­sor Leonard Steinhorn con­tends the Viet­nam War ger­mi­nated white work­ing- class re­sent­ment that, 50 years later, gave the na­tion Pres­i­dent Trump.

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