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COVID-19 Is This Generation’s Vietnam

In six weeks the coronavirus has killed more Americans than the Vietnam war.
April 28, 2020
COVID-19 Is This Generation’s Vietnam

On June 8, 1956, Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. was shot in cold blood outside a U.S. base in South Vietnam by a fellow airman. He would become the first American military death in the conflict that was not yet thought of by his countrymen as the Vietnam war.

On May 15, 1975, Private Kelton R. Turner, an 18-year-old Marine, became the final definitively known American casualty, in an incident that took place two weeks after the fall of Saigon. (Three of Turner’s comrades were left behind and presumed executed at an unknown later date.)

In between these two days—a span of almost 19 years—58,318 Americans were killed in the Vietnam war.

On February 6, 2020, an unidentified resident of California’s Santa Clara County became the first American to die of the coronavirus. Or at least, that is what we think right now. Subsequent testing may reveal that COVID-19 was responsible for some other U.S. death a few days, or even weeks, before then. But let’s assume the February 6 start date.

At some point either today or tomorrow, another unidentified person will become the 58,319th American officially to have died of COVID-19.

Meaning that the coronavirus has killed more Americans in 12 weeks than the Vietnam war killed in 19 years.

I want to say that again because it bears repeating:

The coronavirus has killed more Americans in 12 weeks than the Vietnam war killed in 19 years.

Think about that for a moment.

And now think about what it means for America’s future.

If you view American society as a curvilinear space, you find the Vietnam war’s slow expansion intersecting with other large-scale social changes: the sexual revolution; the rise of recreational drugs; the birth of student radicalism.

These developments might seem as though they were entirely separate, but they all pushed and pulled on one another.

They all shared an idea: the conviction that America’s institutional authority was bankrupt.

Seen in this light, the most damning aspect of the Vietnam war wasn’t the casualty count—as bad as it was. And it wasn’t the mission: However misunderstood it has become over the decades, the idea of containing communist expansion might have been imprudent or poorly executed, but it was not crazy.

No, the signature problem of the Vietnam war was that it was a glaring failure of American political leadership—and the first failure of America’s military establishment.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the American military “became more ‘corporate,’” as Tom Ricks put it: “less tolerant of the maverick and more likely to favor conformist ‘organization men.’” This led to the creation of a leadership culture that prized box-checking and ass-covering over initiative and results. When confronted with the challenge of Vietnam, the military leadership was rudderless, incompetent, or worse. And its failures were largely either tolerated or covered up.

The failures at the top of the chain of command were the worst sort. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, pursued a failed strategy irrespective of the results and was constantly shifting blame and ducking responsibility. Above him sat General Earle Wheeler (chairman of the Joint Chiefs) and Robert McNamara (secretary of defense), whose dereliction of duty became cautionary tales for generations of military men. And their commanders-in-chief—especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—bore much blame as well.

What made Vietnam so devastating to America was the combination of the mass death plus the realization that the colossal failings of the country’s leadership had contributed to the catastrophe.

Much of the turmoil that we associate with “the Sixties” didn’t actually begin until 1968—and a lot of it took place during the Seventies.

When you look at that period, the underlying story of just about every signpost—the hippies, the Manson murders, Watergate, the collapse of the Detroit automakers, the Catholic Church priest abuse scandals, the crime wave, the Weathermen, the gas shortage—is the collapse of some institution that had functioned perfectly well until it suddenly came apart.

Vietnam not only fed this narrative, it became the single biggest example of it—the ur-story of why American institutions could no longer be trusted. Because American lives were tossed into the maw of a war that the political leadership had lied about and the military leadership had no idea how to win. And so, over the course of 19 grinding years, the bodies piled up until 16,899 Americans perished in a single year.

That year was 1968. It is not a coincidence that the height of the death toll in Vietnam marked the beginning of the political and social revolution that changed the face of America for a generation.

A pandemic is not a war. But there are parallels between what happened in Vietnam and America’s experience of the coronavirus.

The first is that the choices of elite leadership in both cases were disastrous.

The president could have banned all travel from China after the outbreak in Wuhan. Despite what he now claims, he did not.

The administration could have taken a hard line with the Chinese government and insisted on embedding American researchers with the Chinese teams in order to get an unfiltered view of the facts on the ground. Instead, the president took the word of China’s authoritarian leader and repeated Chinese propaganda.

The government could have stockpiled essential medical supplies and built a robust testing system during the period between the Wuhan outbreak and the arrival of the virus on America’s shores. It did not.

Another similarity is the manner in which the American political class deceived the public about what was going on. In Vietnam, these deceptions become famous: pretending that bombing was a form of communication; saying that entering the conflict was a way of avoiding conflict; insisting that the war could be won with air power alone; claiming successes and progress which did not exist as a means to bolster first Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon’s electoral prospects.

Such lies are not far from the president watching the coronavirus spread across the country and yet promising Americans that “it’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle.”

But the most striking similarity is the presence of other large-scale societal changes that threaten to interact with the pandemic.

There’s the internet revolution, which, 20 years in, is beginning to mature now that it has incorporated mobile computing and social networks, and which makes possible both the transformation of much of the legacy economy and the spread of mis- and disinformation at a scale never before possible in human history.

There’s the emergence of massive income inequality in the United States, which has widened the socioeconomic distance between the upper class and the lower class and has pushed both edges of the political spectrum further out from the realm of constructive compromise and toward the fringes.

And there’s the rise of nationalism, both in a Trumpian strain in the United States and a more blood-and-soil variety in Europe.

These trends move only somewhat independently of one another. In the months ahead, COVID-19 is going to shape and be shaped by all of them in some ways that can be foreseen. But mostly in ways that cannot.

The single best argument against the idea that the pandemic will be an agent of massive change in America is its relatively short duration. Whereas Vietnam stretched over multiple decades, the coronavirus outbreak is a compressed event. Once it is over, the thinking goes, American society, having retained its plasticity, will snap back quickly to the old ways.

That is one possibility. Here is another:

The long Vietnam debacle created tremendous pressure on American society. As people watched the casualty count climb and saw friends and loved ones perish, this pressure built until the old order cracked and was swept away in revolution and counter-revolution.

In physics, we measure pressure by calculating force applied over area. Given the same amount of force, but a smaller area, the pressure increases.

I wonder if something like this holds for societal stressors. Take the force of a shock and spread it out over a large time horizon—say, three or four years—and the resulting societal pressures will be smaller than if it happens across a relatively short time frame.

What happens when you compress the time frame? Even aside from the economic impact of the last two months and the months ahead, what is the societal impact of experiencing the death toll of Vietnam—and counting—over a 12 week period?

The answer is: A great deal of societal pressure.

The point is not that the pandemic is worse than Vietnam, or vice versa; historically and morally, they are very different world events. The point, rather, is that, three months into the COVID-19 crisis, most Americans have yet to internalize the magnitude of the change that could come from it.

The effects of the Vietnam war on American society and the American psyche—and on more than a generation of U.S. foreign and domestic politics—were enormous.

The present pandemic could have similarly huge effects. These might be the early days of a wave of change that could reshape everything in America: Our politics. Our economics. Our views of each other and of the world around us.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.