Sabato's Crystal Ball

Vietnam: Political Apocalypse Now

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics August 24th, 2004

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The extraordinary emotional exchanges we are witnessing daily about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group leads us to one unavoidable conclusion: For only the second time in our nation’s history, the bitterness of a bloody, lost war will shadow national politics until generational replacement has removed all the brave soldiers who experienced the event first-hand.

The Civil War did not end until everyone who had fought in it had passed away–and then some. For over a century after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Americans were still arguing over the war’s name (the Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression). Even two wars we did not really win–the War of 1812 and the Korean War–never came close to generating such animosity.

Much like the Civil War, the Vietnam War continues to roil our elections almost thirty years after the inglorious collapse of U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Arguably, Vietnam has already played a significant role in as many presidential elections as the Civil War ever did–at least in a headline sense. It was THE ISSUE in 1968 and 1972, but still mattered greatly in 1976 (the amnesty matter for those young men who had fled the country over the draft); 1980, 1984, and 1988 (the “weak on defense” issue for the Democrats as a result of the party’s post-Vietnam dovish tilt), 1992 and 1996 (Clinton’s draft evasion while running against war heroes Bush Sr. and Bob Dole), 2000 (Bush’s National Guard situation), and now 2004.

Can you believe, dear readers, that we are back in the Vietnam jungles yet again? It has happened for three primary reasons:

Now these three pieces have come together in a volatile mix to dominate the presidential campaign’s August doldrums. Kerry and his advisers dearly want to shut down the subject since the debate interferes with their agenda and appears to be having some effect on many voters, if the polls are to be believed. Generally, the news media are supportive of the Kerry objective, both because they suspect the Swift Boat Vets are a front for the GOP and also because most of the major newsrooms in America are run by Vietnam-era baby boomers. These particular boomers were themselves anti-Vietnam War in overwhelming numbers, just like Kerry.

Still, the Bush elements involved in this effort are not likely to let up anytime soon. After all, this is the first time since winter that Kerry, not Bush, has been swimming upstream in a political controversy. That role reversal is a massive relief to the Bush forces, however temporary it may be.

Much more important, the Vietnam vets who have committed themselves to this endeavor show no sign of giving up. Some of them are surprisingly good at arguing their case and debating the usual suspects on TV to a draw or better. Journalists may be anti-war but they have learned not to be anti-veteran, so most tread carefully in this arena.

The vets’ intensity makes it difficult to say when and how this time travel into history will end. It may very well be that the controversy will last through Election Day and, if Kerry is elected, beyond it–to affect his relationships with the armed forces and his decisions on military intervention.

For the moment, Vietnam has been added to Iraq, the war on terror, the economy, and gay marriage as the major issues of the 2004 election. Vietnam? Yes, indeed. This campaign is turning out to be a long, strange trip that is not always following the map created for it some months ago.