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Class and the Vietnam War

In the opening chapters of A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn asserts that class is one of the strongest dividers of people in American history. Starting with the practice of indentured servitude, transitioning to slavery, and, eventually, manifesting itself in the mistreatment of workers, class has suppressed sizable groups of Americans across time periods. In the Vietnam War, as Zinn asserts in today’s reading, the impact of class was just as visible. Noticeably, class was visible in two places: the reasoning for war and the fighters of the war.

While the United States claimed that the war in Vietnam was in order to defend against Communism in East Asia, government memos reveal that the United States government truly wanted the French — who were viewed as modern, industrial, and capitalist — to control the country. In a way, France represented the upper class of countries in the global community. The United States, being a part of this upper class as well, encouraged French control of Vietnam because of their shared bond as powerful countries. Whereas Vietnamese politicians were seen as poor, unintelligent, and incapable of self rule, French leaders were understood as capable of effectively bettering a poor nation. To accomplish this, the United States and France established a puppet leader in Ngo Dinh Diem. Unsurprisingly, Diem’s government neglected the problems of the lower class inside Vietnam. The fact that the puppet leader put forth by America in Vietnam did very little to combat classism showcases the American government’s support of classist division, whether it be on a local or international scale.

Once the war had started, the lower and middle class Americans opposed the war; however, the government’s continued involvement in Vietnam into the 70s highlighted the government’s lack of care for the opinions of the less fortunate. In the early years of the formal war in Vietnam, civil rights groups were the largest opponents to the war. Indeed, leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. vehemently opposed the war effort because, they argued, it sent black Americans, many of which were poor, to die in a fight that would not impact the lives of the average American. As the war continued, this message struck a chord with many middle and lower class Americans, even those who were not black. By the 1970s, studies found that those with less money were more likely to oppose the war. Still, the war in Vietnam continued in the midst of protests against it. Only once people from across the class spectrum, including students, military personnel, and lower-class Americans, opposed the war did the government finally stop the war. The American government’s insistence on war in Vietnam in the face of disapproval from the lower and middle classes reveals the Vietnam War to be a case study in the different political rights and agency afforded to different classes in American society.

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2 Comments

  1. Sophia Peltzer Sophia Peltzer

    Your discussion of the role of class in the war reminds me of similar discussions we had earlier during this course, in relation to the Revolutionary War. It is quite clear in both circumstances that the classically elitist, upper-class had only their own intentions in mind when thinking of the consequences in the war, and never bothered to consider what must be sacrificed in order to gain these monetary and classist benefits because they knew the lower classes would be the ones fighting in the wars. As if the Vietnam War was not unjust enough already, this blatant classism present consistently throughout American history is something that is often hidden from us in history books, but something that helps to explain many class divides in current America.

  2. Sophia Picozzi Sophia Picozzi

    I think your comment about classism not just in the US but in the puppet state of Vietnam is a really good point and I am surprised it isn’t talked about more. the US always claims to be an equal society where class doesn’t matter due to the possibility of upward mobility, however, I don’t know how true that is in reality. We definitely have some classist ideals.

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